When Tracy Kemme first got the calling, at age 22, she had an active social life, an internship in Ecuador, and a serious boyfriend. A sparkly blonde with an easy laugh and a penchant for dangly earrings, she had literally never thought about becoming a “woman religious” before—in laymen’s terms, a nun.
“Not at all!” she says remembering her first response to the notion that maybe God had plans for her to work as a Catholic sister. “It was, like, panic, terror, and resistance. It was like, I will do anything, but please not that!”
God, it seems, is not so easily put off.
One day, while living in an economically impoverished neighborhood in Ecuador, Kemme felt her worldview shift. She felt God wanted her to have more space to grow, so she broke up with her boyfriend. She also resolved to do something meaningful with her life. When she got back to America, she acknowledged the small, still voice within and began her discernment, a partially independent period when aspiring young nuns decide if they have what it takes to commit their lives to a full-time religious life.
Today, at 29, Kemme is a professed Sister of Charity with a commitment to “sustainable living and living in the margins.” She shares close quarters with a few other young Sisters of Charity in a low-income neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio, where the group’s mission is to build faith and social justice. One of her jobs is as a Latino Ministry Coordinator, helping to smooth tensions in a nearby parish for Guatemalan families new to the area. You can hear passion in her voice when she speaks of her vocational focus, which includes climate change and immigration.
Committing to a lifetime of chastity, poverty, obedience, and service to the poor might seem like an unusual career choice for most of today’s Gen-Y-ers , who don’t exactly have a reputation for selflessness. Even if the Pope’s shout out to America’s sisters yesterday during his St. Patrick’s Cathedral speech served to reverse the Vatican’s long-standing campaign, spearheaded by the unpopular Pope Benedict, to criticize U.S. sisters for being too “radically feminist,” today’s young women may seem too sophisticated for convent and religious life. (Said the Pope last night to a roar of applause from the crowd: “In a special way, I would like to express my esteem and gratitude to the religious women of the United States.”)
But as it happens, Kemme is far from the only 20-something to embark on what had seemed until recently like a declining career choice. Though the Church does not provide recent statistics, a slew of media reports from People Magazine to the New York Times suggest that increasing numbers of Catholic millennials are feeling the call of God in growing numbers across the country. (A recent report in NPR showed a similar jump in enthusiasm among male 20-something Catholics as well; in fact, they’re the only age group whose enrollment in the priesthood has increased rather declined.)
The question is not so much why so many women in our secular age would opt for a religious life, since most Catholic sisters will tell you it’s a mystery and gift to be so chosen. But why now?
This surge of youthful energy in religious life is a bit surprising. Membership recruitment among nuns and sisters in the United States had been plummeting for decades. According to National Religious Vocation Conference data, more than 90 percent of the 58,000 nuns and sisters have been 60 years and older for some time. (Though the terms are — wrongly — used interchangably, the term “nun” is used only for women who take vows to live a contemplative life within the walls of a monastery. A woman living and working in a community, who has taken vows, is known as a religious or Catholic sister.) Catholic leaders and the media have long noted the coming cost crisis of caring for American sisters as they age out of service and into retirement.
“The few sisters I’d run into [from Catholic school],” says Kemme, “were mostly 50 years older than me!”
So, in a way, the idea of entering religious life simply did not seem relevant to young Catholic women.
Until it did.
The impact of singing sisters and tweeting nuns
Some of the young women now considering religious life forged their first connections to the sisterhood through a growing number of faith based-websites online. A recent proliferation of hip visible sisters doing their thing on digital screens of every size may also have helped melt longstanding stereotypes of religious life that have pervaded mainstream culture.
As numbers of Catholic sisters and nuns have dwindled by as much as a 72.5 percent since the 60s, according to Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a few of those who choose religious life have recently enjoyed the pop culture spotlight.
Last year, you may have caught Lifetime’s popular reality TV show The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns, which follows five young women visiting different congregations of Catholic sisters to discern a possible religious life. Or YouTube sensation, Sister Christina, the 29-year-old habited nun, who belted out Alicia Keys’ hit “No One” and went on to win the 2014 competition to become TV’s The Voice of Italy. (The most popular of her clips on YouTube has received over 75 million views.)
Then there’s the self-proclaimed young media nun, Sister Helena Burns, whose Twitter profile @SrHelenaBurns reads: “Media nun tweets God, Theology of Body, Media Literacy, Philosophy. Proof God exists: hummingbirds, hockey, coffee.” She is a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, an international congregation founded to communicate God’s Word through the media, and she is wildly popular. Burns gave her Twitter warning about the Pope’s impending visit to her tens of thousand followers: “Brace yourselves. I’ll be tweeting pope hockey pope hockey pope hockey this week.” (Jesus has her heart, but Blackhawk and Maple Leaf fans vie for her affection.) The title of her highly entertaining blog is Hell Burns.
Women trying to figure it out can also Twitter, Instagram and ask questions on the Nunosphere, a variety of blogs that detail the ins and outs of religious life, including Kemme’s Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Nunsuch and Habitually Speaking, among a hundred others.
“Personally I have met at least 10 younger Catholic sisters who’ve ‘binge read’ my entire blogged journey as part of their own discernment,” says Sister Susan Francois, CSJP, 43, a Vocation Director in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Her personal blog details her transition “from bureaucrat to Gen-X nun.”
Nonetheless, Sister Colleen Gibson, the 29-year-old blogger of Wandering in Wonder offers a sobering bit of caution about settling too quickly on easy answers. “I’ve never met anybody, who was like, ‘Oh yeah, I saw Christina on the Italian Voice and that really made me want to be a sister!’” Instead, Gibson claims, it is usually personal face-to-face contact that helps young women realize their vocation. This comes from someone who found the perfect congregation on VISION Vocations, an online service to help people in discernment find a religious order that may best suit their needs.
“It’s basically Match.com for nuns,” Gibson says, laughing.
The National Religious Vocation Conference reported that of the more than 2,500 women who completed online VISION Vocation match profiles in 2013, the majority were under 30, desired to wear a habit or distinctive religious garb, preferred to enter an apostolic community, and attended Catholic school.
Gibson recounts one late study night in college when she reluctantly filled out a VISIONS profile, basically so she could rule out the religious life once and for all. “The questions were about what I wanted out of life and what my relationship with God was like … I matched with probably 200 congregations.”
The next morning her in-box was bombarded with emails from suitors in the form of religious congregations who found her profile appealing. With one persistent group of Benedictines who got her phone number, she had to get stern.
“Finally I had to tell the sister that I wasn’t interested in being cloistered and making fruitcakes the rest of my life.”
But finally the right mellow response came from the Sisters of St. Joseph in Philadelphia, who played it cool and offered lots of room for Gibson to decide whether she even wanted to continue considering the question of a religious vocation.
Turns out she did, and the congregation’s philosophy seemed to fit perfectly with hers — a match made in heaven.
Girl seeks meaningful life
Gibson, of course, is right: it cannot simply be tweeting and singing that brings young women to religious life—and keeps them there. Retention rates indicate that about half of all women who enter religious life as Catholic sisters or nuns stay committed to their vows.
“This is a radical way for someone young to live,” says Gibson, “a way to make a difference in the world.”
By most accounts, the past few generations of Americans have experienced a wide-ranging loss of faith, including growing increasingly alienated from all kinds of organized religions. At the same time, smaller groups (in this case, young women) may be becoming more arduously invested in religion because the modern world, despite all its flashy materialism and sexual rewards, ultimately leaves them wanting more.
Gibson is mindful of the struggles of her vocation, and knows, of course, that not everyone called to serve in religious life will go the distance. She is also mindful of the experience of her Catholic foremothers, the now aging sisters, who have watched their numbers shrink dramatically since the days of Vatican II, which dragged even sequestered nuns into the modern world. These are the sisters who made difficult but necessary changes when a lethargic number of incoming women made it necessary to resize their once-sprawling convents. As interest fell through the 1980s and 1990s, many orders were forced to sell off the grand Mother Houses they’d occupied for decades and find housing in humbler quarters. Some sisters learned to drive cars and balance checkbooks for the first time. Many set out to live in apartments that were closer to the people they served.
“Imagine this,” Gibson says, “in the year 1961 the Sisters of St. Joseph in Philadelphia had a novice class of 110 women. That’s a whole lot of young people showing up and knocking at the door!”
Granted 1961 was an unusually popular year to enter religious life, but the point is taken. Back when religious orders could rely on a bountiful supply of new nuns, they were more prone to require young women to conform to set rules and to accept an imposed identity. Now, however, contends Gibson, religious life for Catholic sisters can be more personal, more nurturing, more about helping young women figure out who they are and how they want to live.
This theory bears out in Kemme’s vocational life, too, especially in the intimate community she and her peers have created in Cincinnati.
“The Mother House is a wonderful place for history and inspiration,” says Kemme, “but we wanted to create a space that’s more applicable to young people. Our goal is to have a discernment house that is welcoming and young and energetic.”
Kemme feels the youthful new members of the Catholic sisterhood are drawn there by a sense of freedom and solidarity. “There’s something about having this network and doing it together that gives us strength and energy.”
She also credits the charismatic new Pope with helping to sustain her budding community by example.
“For women religious, this Pope is affirming of our call in a way that’s never been done before,” she says. “His life exemplifies the kind of Catholicism we believe in. Really putting that mercy and compassion and outreach into action, making it less about rules and more about relationships – that resonates with us.”
And what about the Catholic Church’s recent difficulties, allegations of sexual abuse and corruption? Does it cross the minds of these young women?
“It isn’t an easy question,” admits Gibson. “The troubles in the Catholic Church have always been a reality. I was in high school, then college, when the sex abuse scandal was breaking. The church is filled with sinners, and very human humans — a human institution. But it’s the church I love, the church that helps me connect to God.”
In Derby, New York, a quiet hamlet on the Erie Canal, Sister Nicolette Langlois, 29, and five other Marian Franciscan postulants, ranging from ages 24 to 29, acknowledge that some people refuse to even enter a church these days. Their solution? New evangelism for middle-class suburbia through a coffee house run by the youthful sisters in full traditional habits. The idea is that coffee houses are comfortable and inviting.
“We want to open our Catholic coffee shop in about four years after we take our vows,” says Langlois, whose community lives temporarily in a borrowed vacant Mother House while they pay off student loans and look for more permanent housing. “Sure, we’ll be happy to give [our customers] a delicious cup of coffee, but we hope it will lead to more.”
For herself, Kemme takes a simpler approach to the difficult questions.
“I am the church,” she says. “We are the church.”
Not an easy decision
Violet (not her real name) is a busy Vietnamese-American high school junior in the Midwest. She reaches out via Twitter private messaging: “In an essay I wrote in second grade, I had mentioned that I wanted to become a nun. Although through the last couple of years it’s been faltering, I recently have become more excited about my possible vocation to the religious life.”
Though she prefers to communicate electronically and exchange information via Google docs, she does manage to slip in a quick interview on her friend’s cell phone despite studying late the previous night for a Spanish Test and only having 10 minutes to get to Pre-Calc.
For the last three years, Violet has attended annual retreats at a Formation House in a neighboring state to see if God is actually calling her to religious life.
“I have experienced such peace and community there,” she says of the retreats, which are hosted by the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George.
For a week each June, she seriously considers the question of her future with 15 peers, ranging in age from 13 to 18. Her parents strongly encourage her vocation, and she seeks guidance from other adults as well. But ultimately, the difficult decision is hers alone to make.
Becoming a Catholic sister is not easy. It involves a serious and arduous process, called formation, involving many steps. Different congregations may require years of inquiry, discernment, and at least four years of training before first vows are taken. After that, vows may be renewed every year, generally for up to eight years, when final vows are taken. Gibson says, “There are many levels to the process that are not binding when a person is free at any time to change her mind and leave.”
While Violet is still not 100 percent sold on the idea of entering religious life, she tends toward the traditional. “Oh, I definitely want to wear a habit,” she says, perhaps a bit romantically. “I’m considering the Dominicans and the Franciscans at the moment.”
Her future is still unwritten, and in some way, it all seems to rest on choosing among options she sees in an equal light.
“No matter if it’s the married, single, or religious life,” she says, “all vocations are beautiful.”
Kemme agrees that it’s important to take enough time to consider all the possibilities. “To anyone who has thought about religious life, it’s totally worth engaging the questions,” she says. “I have found a joy I never knew existed.”
MB Caschetta is the author of the award-winning Miracle Girls: A Novel (Engine Books, 2014), which involves the secret underground mission of a network of radical Vietnam-war protesting Catholic sisters.